Earlier this year, Garrett Clayton made headlines when he came out as gay. It followed years of rumours and pressure from the media to reveal his sexuality – particularly during his role as adult film star Brent Corrigan in 2016’s true crime thriller King Cobra – and closed out a chapter of the actor’s life that saw him hide his true self in the public eye.
“The decision to come out was finally feeling comfortable as me,” he tells us during his first major interview as an openly gay man. “I just felt like, ‘OK, I’m finally ready to do this’, and I think that’s the most important thing to take away from this is that everyone has to do it when they feel comfortable. If you let someone push you into something like this it can be harmful if you’re not ready. That’s something I experienced personally during King Cobra, where it felt like a lot of journalists wanted me to come out, but I wasn’t ready.”
While most queer people remember feeling different from an early age – many for their entire lives – Garrett has a specific moment where his sexuality became apparent to him. “I was around 15 years old and walking down the sidewalk with a friend of mine,” he recalls. “She was talking about boys she liked, and she was asking what girls I liked. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t like any girls, but I think some boys are cute’. I didn’t say it out loud, because I didn’t know how to put it into words and I didn’t fully understand it. It’s not something they teach you when you’re growing up.
“So that was my first recollection of being like, ‘Oh, I’m into guys,’ and it was a bit of a struggle, because I didn’t come from a community that embraced difference. I remember visiting high school when I was still in middle school, and there was only one out gay guy in the school – which looking back, was still pretty incredible for the community we were in – and everyone was freaking out like, ‘Oh my god, the gay guy is over there’. I didn’t really realise at the time how aggressive and detrimental that kind of thing can be to a young person.”
By the time he turned 16, Garrett was actively looking to embrace his newly-discovered sexual identity, and would regularly make use of a fake ID to soak up gay nightlife on the weekend with an older friend, Ronnie. He was the first person Garrett came out to, and played a big part in the young actor’s journey towards self-acceptance.
“We used to go out on the weekends and I would use a fake ID to get into these clubs and bars,” Garrett recalls. “I was trying to learn how to be comfortable with myself, so he took me under his wing and was like, ‘Come out with me and my friends, you’ll be safe, you’ll be in a good environment, and you won’t have to worry about outside factors’. He’s always been more comfortable with himself than I’ve ever been, and I’ve always admired that about him.”
At school, he found it hard to fit in, describing himself as a “very conflicted” teenager. Like many people from the LGBTQ community, Garrett faced bullying from people who targeted his sexuality before he even knew how to put a label on it. “I’ve always been a bit awkward, but I started to become more comfortable when I joined the drama club,” he says. “I think that’s when people started calling me gay; I didn’t come out, people just assumed. It was aggressive in a weird way. I’d have people trying to bait me to get into fights in the hallways a lot, and eventually I ended up getting into fights. And while I’m not endorsing fighting, I’m happy I did fight back. It’s funny, because people make fun of the drama kids in high school, but then the drama club kids grow up and get to be in movies and on TV and suddenly everyone wants to be their friend.”
He was later outed behind his back by one of his best friends, although he didn’t find out until his graduation party – “It was so nonchalant for the person I held closest at that time to reveal something that should have been mine,” he says – and though his accepting mother was his “ray of light” while growing up, his relationship with his father and brother took a hit after coming out at home.
“Before my dad moved to Florida I kind of had a meltdown and told him, and he just hated it. A month or two after that, when I was leaving my last day on the set of my first movie – which was a huge step for me, I was so excited – he freaked out because I was late. I came out to the car and he just started screaming at me, and it boiled up to him screaming at me about how he hated that I was gay, and he didn’t know what to do with me. It was this horrible gut-wrenching fight right after one of my first big accomplishments.
“My brother reacted badly when I told him, too. I don’t want to put him on blast, because he’s still my family, but I do feel that honesty in this situation is important. A few years ago, when same-sex marriage was legalised, my brother was furious, and he went online posting about how the American flag was gonna be a rainbow soon, like, ‘What’s happening to America?’ And I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘You have a gay brother, you idiot!’ So I went on his Facebook like, ‘So wait a minute, you’re telling me that there can be someone you care about in your life, who wants to impede nothing on yours, and just wants the same rights as you, and you would take that away from them?’ And then he blocked me.” It’s a rift that still hasn’t healed. “If my brother wants to reconnect with me, I welcome it wholeheartedly. I’m a big believer in people learning from their mistakes. But not every story gets a happy ending.”
By the time he relocated to Los Angeles, Garrett says he was starting to feel “pretty comfortable” in both his sexuality and his own skin, despite his negative experiences growing up. “I love my job, it’s my whole world,” he affirms, but it was here, on the cusp of becoming a star, that he experienced one of the “hardest” decisions of his career: Go back into the closet, or risk missing out on his dream.
“One of the first things somebody who was instrumental in starting my career did, they sat me down and they said, ‘Are you gay?’ And I could feel the pressure of the question, so I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gay, or bi, or whatever’, because suddenly I could feel that there was something wrong with that in this person’s eyes. They looked at me and said, ‘No one wants to fuck the gay guy, they want to go shopping with him, so we’re going to have to figure this out.’
“It turned into this situation where I’d get calls and they’d say, ‘You still need to butch it up’. I literally had to change everything about myself at that point, otherwise I was never gonna make it. And that was so conflicting, because here’s somebody offering you your dream, but they’re telling you that you’re not good enough the way you are. You’re talented, but who you are isn’t good enough. So they had me changing the way I walked, the way I spoke, the way I dressed, the way I answered questions. It got as petty as them saying, ‘People need to see that you’re into sports because they’ll think that’s more masculine, so why don’t you go buy a sports hat, take some pictures in it, and make sure people see you in it’.”
Unfortunately, this insidious homophobia was something that continued long into his career. “There’d be calls after I went into casting offices like, ‘Hey, this is how gay casting thought you came across today, so here’s what you need to do to fix it’. I even had cast members screaming drunkenly in the middle of a room, ‘Who here thinks Garrett is gay?’ and then yelling at me for not having come out yet,” he says. It felt “like being back in high school” for the aspiring actor, and the self-suffocation prescribed by those around him inevitably took its toll, leading to a period of reclusive behaviour and depression and, ultimately, therapy.
“I convinced myself that I was the problem, and I got into a really dark place for a couple of years,” he explains. “Then I went to therapy for about a year and a half to really sort through all the things I went through growing up and the situations I found myself in while in Hollywood. I got to work through all those conflicting things.”
As well as therapy, which helped him get to a place where he finally felt confident being himself, Garrett credits his long-term partner Blake Knight, a screenwriter he met while working as a waiter when he first moved to Los Angeles, for giving him the courage to brush off the bigots and come out to the world.
“It’s been quite difficult for us, with all the things I’ve been through, and he has been thankfully so understanding of that journey. He’s been really upset in the past with how people have treated me, and I’ve had a hard time standing up for myself to those people a lot. I don’t know if that goes back to me being awkward or having confidence issues or just not knowing how to talk about it, but I know that it’s something he’s had a huge issue with. In the past, he’s been like, ‘Why do you let these people treat you this way?’ And that was something I had to work through, learning my own self worth, which is important.”
In 2016, the former Disney Channel star made one of the biggest u-turns in his career by taking on the role of once-underage gay porn star Brent Corrigan in biopic King Cobra. The film, which also featured turns from Keegan Allen, Molly Ringwald and Hollywood’s most prominent queerbaiter James Franco, told the real-life story of the brutal murder of adult movie producer Bryan Kocis. It’s probably the most explicitly gay role an actor could take, but Garrett wasn’t worried about people questioning his sexuality, even though he was still in the closet.
“That never really crossed my mind, it was more the nudity I was worried about,” he says. “I wanted it to be tactful in the way it was shot, because I think if it’s gratuitous, you’re watching it thinking, ‘How is this forwarding the plot?’ Like, don’t make people get naked just because you want to see them naked, that’s ridiculous. When I was doing that film, I talked to [director] Justin Kelly and the thing we agreed on is that every piece of nudity in the film had to forward the plot, otherwise I wasn’t gonna do it. But yeah, I never really cared about playing a gay or straight character, I think the fun is in the differences, and playing different humans.”
That brings Garrett onto another hot topic in Hollywood; straight actors taking gay roles, and cisgender actors taking transgender roles. “I’ve had trouble getting into rooms because people say, ‘Oh he’s not masculine enough’, but they’ll have a masculine straight man going in to play a feminine gay character. They’ll give him the chance, but they won’t give us the chance,” he sighs. “So I think the whole point LGBTQ people are trying to make – and what I think people aren’t grasping – is that once
the playing field is even, and we get the chance to go up for any type of role we want, then it’s fine, we can all play different parts. But until we’re all represented, and we get equal opportunity, that conversation isn’t gonna be started.”
Does he worry that he’ll miss out on opportunities now that he’s come out as gay? “I’m sure there’s gonna be prejudice out there, but I can only do so much as a human,” he says with a shrug. As far as the next year goes, Garrett has a wide-ranging set of roles coming his way. In Between Worlds, he’s a drug dealer who rides in a crotch rocket biker gang; in new Emile Hirsch movie Peel, he describes his character as a “butch gay cheerleader”; and his current project, Reach, sees him play a teenager struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. The latter is a role that he was inspired to take on by two of the most devastating moments of his life.
“We spoke about the bullying aspect of Reach, but I think it’s also important to talk about a family member of mine who committed suicide,” Garrett says. “He hung himself in the basement of a house that a large number of my family grew up in. It destroyed us. There are still parts of my family that we don’t speak to – not because we don’t want to, but because we were all so scarred by it. I think it’s important for people to know this story because of how serious these subjects are. That’s why I took on this role. I felt like it was my job to tell the story and to make sure it was handled with care and with truth.
“The other thing that I’ve never really talked about is my friend who was killed in a school shooting. She was chased by a man with a gun into the arts building and he shot her and then shot himself. I remember at rehearsals the night before we had talked about having similar dreams and wanting to be actors. Nobody is exempt from these things, and it’s important that we tell these stories. I want her story told, because she deserves it. I want people to see this film and know they’re not alone, and that other people go through these things. I think it’s important that people see we can get through this if we support each other and if we love each other.”
Love is the overarching theme pushing Garrett forward now he’s joined the ranks of the very few openly gay actors in Hollywood. The response since coming out has been “overwhelmingly positive” and “so accepting” – especially in contrast with his experiences growing up – and now he plans to use his voice to inspire a new generation of queer youth discovering who they are. “We’re moving the needle forwards in Hollywood with regards to LGBTQ people, but we’re not exempt from that prejudice still being out there, because we still have to fight to create that equality,” Garrett says. “I feel like it’s important and it’s my job to join that movement and fight for that equality, because I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I went through.”
“By the way, I have had other people in my life who love me just as I am. I do have that. My mom was wonderful. I don’t want you to think that everyone in my life was terrible,” he laughs as our conversation draws to a close. “But it’s important to share the good and bad stories, because you learn from those things and they all accumulate to make you stronger.”
With a sigh of relief, he adds: “It’s good to get these things out.”
Photography Maxwell Poth
Words Daniel Megarry
Fashion Gabriel Langenbrunner
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